Voting-machine source code: a ray of light, not yet full sunshine

Posted by Karen McKim · January 12, 2019 10:31 AM

In brief: Jill Stein’s post-recount organization, Voting Justice, won a victory over voting machines companies ES&S and Dominion in Wisconsin. Stein will be allowed to bring in experts to examine the software for several models of voting machines, and those experts will be able to report their findings publicly. These machines are used not just in Wisconsin, but around the nation. That is all very good.

But this victory is only a breach in the wall of secrecy, not a demolition. Several factors will limit the benefits that will flow from this victory. If we’re going to secure future elections, we will need to thank Jill Stein and the Wisconsin Elections Commission–and keep on fighting.


An otherwise well-informed voter could be forgiven for not realizing that the 2016 Presidential recount effort, led by the Green Party’s Jill Stein, is still producing valuable results.

Corporate news media see elections as horse races. Once a winner is declared and the bets paid out, journalistic curiosity dies.  Editors see no story in the poor overall quality of American election administration.

So the 2016 Presidential Recount—completed in Wisconsin, aborted in Michigan and Pennsylvania, not even attempted elsewhere—got a big media yawn when it did not change in the outcome. 

Here’s some news you may have missed as a result:

Since 2016, the products of the recounts have supported organizers’ efforts to improve elections administration—with impressive success.  In Pennsylvania, Stein’s organizers used a recount-related lawsuit to force that state to prohibit paperless voting machines and require routine election audits after future elections.

In Wisconsin, the recount produced a mountain of before-and-after data, from every polling place, for every candidate. Academics from MIT, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin analyzed it.  Although the recount increased neither Trump’s nor Clinton’s ultimate total by more than a few hundred votes, the researchers discovered that more than 17,600 votes had originally been miscounted—or 1 in every 170.  

Those stunning findings were ignored by the news media, but the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) took note. I believe that study contributed to their 2018 decision to encourage county clerks to improve embarrassingly weak canvass practices. (The ‘canvass’ is the weeks-long process after Election Day, during which local election officials should review the results to make sure they are correct.)

Wisconsin organizers also used the recount results successfully to encourage the WEC to prohibit further use of one particularly unreliable model of voting machine, after the recount caught it ignoring votes marked on as many as one-third of the ballots.

And now, Stein’s organization, Voting Justice, has achieved victory in a recount-related lawsuit that will throw some much-needed light on voting-machine software.

A unique Wisconsin law requires voting machine companies to place a copy of the actual vote-tabulating software in escrow after every election. Separate from the process of approving voting machines for sale, this requirement was originally intended to protect local governments’ voting-equipment investment. In case a company went out of business, the State would have a working copy of the most recently updated software as backup to keep the machines counting.

The law also requires the State to allow candidates to inspect the escrowed software if the candidates agree “to exercise the highest degree of reasonable care to maintain the confidentiality of all proprietary information.”  The software in Wisconsin voting machines is the same as that used in other states, and any inspection could have national implications.

So the Stein campaign asked to inspect the software. They and WEC reached agreement on how Stein’s experts can examine the software without having the opportunity to steal the voting machine companies’ trade secrets. (I can hear the computer-security academics scoffing: “As if anyone would want to!”)

But when the voting-machine companies saw the agreement, ES&S and Dominion didn’t want to play by those rules. The two major players in Wisconsin’s voting-machine market wanted WEC to impose a gag order on Stein’s inspectors.

WEC said “No gag order.” The companies sued.

Their demand of the court was basically: “If you’re going to let Jill Stein’s experts examine our software, prohibit them from ever telling anyone their conclusions.” In other words, the voting machine companies wanted the judge to declare that the experts’ opinions were the companies’ proprietary trade secrets.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Elke backed the WEC and turned the voting machine companies down. Likely sensing the main reason why any company would seek such a gag order, the judge wrote:

By way of example, a nutritionist might be given access to the secret formula for Coca-cola, which is undeniably a trade secret. It would not be a disclosure of that trade secret for the nutritionist to say, “After seeing the secret formula, I can tell you that Coca-cola is unhealthy and I would never let my own children drink it.”

This is a breakthrough. To my knowledge, independent experts have never before been able to examine “the software components that were used to record and tally the votes in an election” with the approval and support of the state elections agency. That software is defined as “the vote-counting source code, the table structures, modules, program narratives, and other human-readable instructions used to count votes.”

Whatever the inspectors find, the voting-machine companies will not be able to say “But the software you saw was only for review purposes. We had fixed that problem in the operational software.” If they make that claim, they’re admitting they violated the Wisconsin law that required them to provide the State with the software that was used in the election.

And what will their inspection find? Smart money would lay odds on serious problems. You need to know only the basics about profit-seeking corporations and low-bid procurement to predict flaws and holes in a product that the manufacturers believed was eternally protected from scrutiny.

We’ll have to wait to see how well the inspectors can describe those problems without violating their pledge to maintain secrecy about the details of the coding. However, this is the best opportunity so far.

A final benefit is, I believe, this decision’s effect on efforts in other states to compel independent examination of vote-tabulating software. With this precedent, those efforts will be more likely to go forward and more likely to succeed.  Wisconsin has shown that states can require voting machine companies to allow inspection of the software that will count our votes.

The wall of secrecy surrounding the “black box” voting-machine programs has been breached. But it has not been torn down. The Stein team grabbed the opportunity that presented itself and made the most of it, but the benefits have limitations.

The first limitation is that this is a one-time event. If no other candidate ever demands to inspect the software, it will never again be inspected. We don’t yet have routine quality assurance.

Second, this decision does nothing, in itself, to banish proprietary software from public elections. If we want to get any closer to open-source software and routine quality assurance inspections, we’re going to have to force this review’s eventual findings into the public’s and legislators’ awareness. We’re going to have to do that ourselves. Count on the news media to maintain their willful blindness to any news, however shocking, that lacks a Republican vs. Democrat partisan angle.

Third, while this review will be able to identify any defects or vulnerabilities in the master copy of each systems software, the inspectors won’t be able to tell whether the election was hacked.

  • Computer programs can be manipulated in ways that are undetectable to even expert forensic analysts. In Brave New Ballot, Johns Hopkins University computer-science professor Aviel Rubin recounted how he annually provides his graduate computer-forensics students with programming he has hacked at the level of the binary code (that is, the ones and zeroes that underlie the human-readable source code). Years go by between the times when a grad student detects the hacked code, and grad students have been able to stump him, too.

  • Neither voting-machine companies nor election officials will be able to provide Stein’s inspectors with the software that actually counted votes on Election Day. In a “precinct-count” state like Wisconsin, computer tabulation takes place in thousands of separate computers—at least one at every polling place.  Before each election, those machines’ software is copied, recopied, and modified for the many different sets of races and candidates that appear on the jurisdictions’ different ballots.     
    In counties that use the Dominion ImageCast Evolution system (with the exception of Fond du Lac County), the software has even been transmitted over the internet from the Colorado manufacturer to the county clerk.  
    Therefore, to confirm with certainty that the software in every machine was compliant in even one election, inspectors would have to obtain access to the thousands of copies. No one is in a position to collect all that software in a single place, and Stein’s experts wouldn’t have time to review it even if it could be collected.

  • Voting machines can be made to mis-tabulate without altering the source code that Stein’s experts will review. For example, a corrupt or lazy service technician could have installed unauthorized remote-access capability in the county elections computer (as Pennsylvania clerks discovered, to their dismay, in 2014) or in individual voting machines. Later, someone could have taken control of the machines’ output (that is, our election results) simply bypassing or overriding the authorized software.

The best possible outcome of these reviews would be that the experts will find the weaknesses, report them out, and motivate legislatures nationwide to adopt laws requiring open-source software and routine independent software inspection in every local jurisdiction in every election.

But even if that happens, it will not close and lock the door against outcome-altering mis-tabulation of our votes.

The only effective protection against hacked elections remains what it has always been: Routine, manual verification of the correct winners, using paper ballots, completed before the results are declared final.

Routine detection-and-correction is the only security measure strong enough to deter hacking while also protecting final election results against undetected error and malfunction.

It is the only way surely to protect the true voice of the people.

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